CLOQUET, the SHORES OF BIG LAKE--Stuart Nelson lives in a cabin he's artfully turned into something of a dream home. He steps through a sliding door and breathes in the lake, shimmering, jumping with fish.
Nelson remembers an osprey once plucking one of those fish only to suffer the indignity of a bald eagle chasing it till the payload had to go -- the eagle snatching the fresh fish from its drop.
"You don't see that every day," said Nelson. No, you don't. But the 66-year-old Nelson has given himself the chance. It's something he does often. When he does, he's a good bet to come through. Like he did again this week, with the announcement that Nelson's painting of a rainbow trout leaping to consume a mayfly has been chosen for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 2014 Trout Stamp.
The painting was selected from 13 submissions for the annual contest.
Nelson won the 1999 trout stamp contest with a painting of a brook trout but hadn't submitted an entry since, instead choosing to paint other subjects (including the winning 2011 Walleye Stamp). Asked why he chose to enter this year after the hiatus, Nelson said fans of his previous work wanted to see him paint another trout, and he decided to oblige.
Nelson called the 2014 winning rainbow, "the best thing I've ever done ... I could feel it was a winner right away; it's almost a bookend" to his winning brookie from 1999. That one leapt left; the rainbow leaps right. The mayfly in each painting is as dynamite as the fish. "I scored a few 10s (from the judges)," Nelson said, "one of them specifically liked my mayfly."
With an ichthyologist (a zoologist who studies fish) and environmentalists and game wardens among the judges, precision counts. Nelson paints his DNR contest entries with needle-haired brushes on a 6 ½-by-9-inch white board. Functionally, it shrinks to 2¼-by-1 3/8.
"One of the judges is an engraver," Nelson said, "He's looking at this as a stamp and asking himself, 'Will it reduce and retain the quality on the stamp?'"
Nelson can think like a judge, but his strength lies in his artistry. He said he has always known how to draw. He honed that skill from an early age. Through influential high school art endeavors -- the precision of drafting class, the freedom of Expressionism, the encouragement of his Cloquet teachers telling him "you've got the talent" -- and on to four years of art college at the School of Associated Arts (now College of Visual Arts) in St. Paul.
His brief professional background as a commercial artist gave him a keen sense of how his fish's scales, hundreds of them, will reproduce. His images of water are stunning, unlike anything else you see in the nature art medium -- real, yes, and suited to the context of the image, but with a hint of pop art flair. The colors are bright. His background fog hangs thick with mist. His rainbow trout isn't just jumping out of the water; it's popping out, splashing water pellets in 3-D.
Nelson retired from Potlatch. He bristled during a brief stint working commercially under an art director. As an artist, Nelson admits, he's an isolationist. During breaks at the mill, Nelson would draw on the tables, which were always covered over with mill-produced paper. Sometimes, co-workers tore out his sketches and asked him to sign them.
Since retirement, he's aged like Paul Newman aged, handsomely, and lived the artist's dream by making a cottage industry of Stuart Nelson, himself. Because the DNR offers no prizes for the stamp contest winner, the winning artist retains the right to reproduce the work. Nelson can and likely will sell out 300 or more numbered and signed prints of his upcoming stamp. He did the last time. He's worked alongside fishing royalty, Al Lindner, to raise charitable money on his prints for ALS and Minnesota Teen Challenge. A Lindner signature alongside Nelson's makes the item a silent auction gold standard.
The key to any best-selling print is the stamp.
"If you don't win," Nelson said, "it's useless. It's still good, but it's useless in that way. People don't buy paintings of second place. It's just the facts."
Like all good artists, Nelson is an observer. You don't see eagle hunts every day, remember. You can also see this in his "grotto" -- a one-room studio devoted to his art. He is reluctant to share it, because his wife and most trusted critic, MaeBell, says it's a mess. If it is, it's a fine mess. There are morgue files of images collected across 30 years. The fast-drying acrylic paints Nelson uses are in tiny bottles, piling up everywhere.
Currently, there are a dozen or more pheasant shots posted in front of the drawing table. They're for inspiration. Nelson is taking a crack at the Royal Flush: stamps in walleye, trout, pheasant, turkey and duck.
He's got a month to finish a pheasant stamp entry. His last foray into the avian world was a learning experience. He finished a few rungs down the ladder, and realized his feathers were lacking.
"You're trying to paint gasoline on water," he said, "that level of iridescence."
To do so, Nelson takes the advice of "a lot of my teachers: get away and come back with fresh eyes." He works no more than an hour at a time, splicing coffee breaks and ("egads!") actual fishing into his days.
Tunnel vision is the bane of the creator, said Nelson, because it distorts the image. Nelson is often credited with having authentic motion and body movement associated with his fish. The current sketch on his desk is one of a pheasant at lift-off. It tilts skyward just right. Nelson is consumed by these details. The number of rays in any one of a trout's fins? Nelson can tell you. The angle of a fish's lateral line is the sort of thing that weighs on his conscience and might keep him up at night.
"You don't just make things up," he said. "You've got to know."
Nelson does his own framing. He gets this trait from his deceased father, Willard Nelson, who was "a craftsman."
He was talented but grew up in tougher times," Nelson said fondly.
In recalling this, Nelson displayed the sentimentality one often finds in the artist. It's not just an observance of nature, but a connection to it and everything around him. He sees and feels it all in his own way.
"That's my favorite," Nelson said. "The abstract.
"There's a big difference between that and what I do. You have the freedom of a bigger canvas. Bigger brushes. You can stand back and just paint."
But, "with mine, everything's real. I've got to get up close like this."
Nelson leaned in. He pantomimed a brush stroke. Just so.